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Early Signs of Dementia: Recognizing Cognitive Decline

Early Signs of Dementia: Recognizing Cognitive Decline

Recognizing early signs of dementia and cognitive decline remains critical to connecting older adults with the treatment they need to improve or delay symptoms.

Dementia affects an estimated fifty million people worldwide, with nearly ten million new cases being diagnosed every year, reports the World Health Organization. Dementia is common among older adults but is not considered to be a normal part of aging.

When caught early, dementia may be delayed or improved with healthy lifestyle behaviors, medications, and several therapies. Knowing how to spot early signs of dementia and cognitive decline can make you more aware of whether it’s time for your loved one to be connected with professional treatment.

Read on to learn more about early signs of dementia and the services Lompoc Valley Medical Center provides for people with dementia and their caregivers.

Subtle Changes in Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory problems represent one of the earliest signs of dementia — often so subtle that you and your loved one may initially try to laugh these moments off. Your loved one may forget where they put the car keys or what they ate for breakfast. Other common short-term memory problems associated with early dementia include forgetting why they entered the room and planning for the day. If you notice that your loved one is experiencing frequent short-term memory lapses, it’s possible dementia may be setting in.

Difficulty Expressing Thoughts

Struggling to communicate thoughts and find the right words to express oneself is another early sign of dementia. Your loved one may forget certain words or have difficulty explaining a relatively simple thought or concept. Conversations with your loved one may become longer and more difficult as you struggle to understand what they’re trying to say and communicate.

Abrupt Mood Swings

Abrupt mood changes appear in early dementia, which can occur for several different reasons. Dementia causes loss of neurons in parts of the brain that control emotions, personality, focus, and motivation, which is why people affected by dementia may suddenly change their mood or act differently from their usual selves. Sometimes, dementia can make it difficult for the person to follow conversations or focus in noisy environments, which can cause frustration, anger, and other emotions and behavior that seem uncharacteristic and out of place.

If you notice your loved one has become moodier at random times and more sensitive in certain environments, understand that this usually stems entirely from the effects of dementia and isn’t necessarily aimed at you.

Loss of Interest or Apathy

A person with early dementia may start losing interest in their favorite hobbies and activities and spending time with friends and relatives. This loss of interest, or apathy, occurs on behalf of decreased motivation and loss of brain neurons, just as that occurs with abrupt mood swings. Your loved one may perform their usual daily activities like brushing their teeth and getting dressed without showing emotion or fully engaging in these tasks. They may also become isolated and withdrawn, neglect their personal hygiene, and exhibit little emotion in social settings.

Inability to Complete Normal Tasks

Tasks that were once routine and relatively easy to perform will often become more difficult for people with early dementia. Brushing teeth, preparing meals, and managing finances are examples of everyday tasks that will gradually become more taxing with dementia. Pay attention to whether your loved one seems to be struggling more with everyday tasks such as these — particularly those that require attention to detail, such as playing board games or driving in heavy traffic. Your loved one may also struggle with learning new things and performing new tasks.

Repeating Conversations and Behaviors

Memory loss in dementia can often make the person forget having had certain conversations or performing certain tasks; therefore, they may repeat things they’ve already said or tasks they’ve already completed, such as making a phone call. The frequency and extent to which they repeat themselves may vary depending on the severity of their dementia. For example, a person with early dementia may repeat a story they told you last week, while a person with more advanced dementia may repeat a story within five minutes of having told it.

Take note of whether your loved one seems to be repeating themselves in conversation or repeating behaviors such as brushing teeth, walking the dog, or shaving within minutes of when they last performed that particular task.


Confusion represents one of the most common and earliest symptoms of dementia. It may involve your loved one calling you by a different name, forgetting your face for a moment, or showing difficulty when navigating social situations. Their confusion may be accompanied by feelings of frustration, anger, and/or embarrassment, which is completely normal in situations when your loved one is unable to grasp and understand what is happening at any given moment. Moments of confusion can often be subtle in early dementia.

Inability to Follow Stories

Memory loss, confusion, and apathy are common dementia symptoms that can make it extremely difficult to follow stories, such as conversations, novels, movies, and television shows. A loved one with early dementia may frequently ask you to repeat yourself during conversations or ask you to fill them in on what’s going on in a particular show or movie — even if watching it together.

Getting Lost or Losing Sense of Direction

Getting lost in once-familiar places can often be a tell-tale and alarming sign of early dementia. Your loved one may go for a walk and not come home for a long time or forget how to drive home when out shopping or running errands. Many senior living communities that treat people with dementia often have strict security measures to prevent residents from wandering off and getting into dangerous situations. If your loved one has started getting lost or is leaving home at night or during other inappropriate times, consider connecting them with professional treatment immediately.

Where to Get Help for Dementia and Cognitive Decline

Lompoc Valley Medical Center is home to many medical providers trained to assess, diagnose, and treat dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive conditions. We also offer long-term care services and a family caregiver support network for caring for relatives with dementia. Visit our provider page to make an appointment with one of our providers who can help you and your loved one treat and manage dementia.